CHARLESTON (AP) - West Virginia has joined a string of states looking to regulate or ban exotic animals kept as pets following the release of dozens of wild animals in an Ohio community last year.
The Senate introduced a bill this week that would require current owners of such animals to obtain a permit and inspection from the Division of Natural Resources and generally bans breeding and possession of non-native, wild animals. A related bill in the House of Delegates would ban future purchases and prohibit breeding but does not provide a permitting process.
Animals under the ban could include snow leopards, cobras and crocodiles.
Both bills also detail records that the owners must keep or present to health or animal control officials and allow the animals to be confiscated.
The Senate bill currently lacks a specific list of animals and lawmakers are working to change the wording before the Natural Resources Committee could consider the issue as early as next week, said Sen. William Laird, the committee's chair.
The Fayette County Democrat said the bills were prompted by the release of dozens of animals by a private owner in Zanesville, Ohio, last October. Police were forced to kill 48 of the animals and several others were taken to zoos for care and treatment.
"In West Virginia we don't currently have what are considered to be adequate laws relating to exotic animals," Laid said. "This legislation is intended to bring some elements of oversight to that process for persons would choose to have animals that are not indigenous to this region."
Existing state law provides pet permits for some native animals and commercial permits for captive deer. State law also prohibits keeping some animals like raccoons as pets because of the risk of rabies, said Paul Johansen, assistant chief in charge of game management with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.
But officials have no idea how many people own exotic animals because state law doesn't require owners to report them, Johansen said.
"A lot of this stuff takes place underneath the radar screen," he said. "We don't know where they are. We don't know how many there are. We don't how they are being housed or if they're a threat to local communities."
The last time DNR officers encountered an exotic animal, a tiger had escaped its cage and was spotted several miles away from Snowshoe Mountain Resort in 2008, Johansen said.
The Humane Society of the United States supports the House version of the bill. The organization wants to prohibit breeding and prevent future wild animal purchases in the state in order to reduce the risk of spreading diseases to domestic animals and humans, said Summer Wyatt, the state director in West Virginia.